Bohumira Smidakova

The Western Narrative and Filmic Representation of Roma

The ‘Gitano’ Figure as an Essential Component of the Spanish National Discourse


The Roma figure epitomised Spanishness as its presence in the nation-building discourse was shaped by the intellectual elites from the end of the nineteenth century onwards. Appropriated by ideologies both from the Right and the Left, the representation of this minority on the screen reveals the anxieties that the Spanish majority society experienced regarding race, gender or socio-economic status.

In this essay, I explore how the Roma figure serves the purpose of creating a Spanish national identity, and how Roma representation changes according to the ideological discourse of a specific historical moment. The driving question of this essay is the following: What is so appealing about the Romani people that despite the socio-political changes Spain has experienced over the last century they metonymically continue to represent this nation.

The Roma have been an integral part of stereotypical Spanishness since as far back as the eighteenth century. Travellers from all around Europe crossed the Pyrenees in order to enjoy ‘exotic’ Spain, which the wave of industrialisation had supposedly not yet reached, although it was in full force in other European countries. Travellers were keen to explore the Moorish legacy, and soon their attention turned to the passionate dances of Andalusian women.

Prosper Mérimée’s novella Carmen (1847) and the homonymous opera by Georges Bizet (1875) allowed the visualisation of these foreigners’ fantasies to take concrete shape in the fictional character of Carmen, a hyper-sexualised and rogue Spanish ‘Gypsy woman’ whose charm was hard to escape. The creation of the femme fatale embodied by a Romani woman only reinforced the image of Spain as an exotic place, and contributed to the equation between the ‘Gitano’, flamenco and Andalusia. This external projection had an impact on the nation-building discourse and shaped the representation of Spanish Roma.1

The Colourful ‘Gypsy’

1898 marks the end of Spain as a colonial power. The loss of overseas territories, Cuba and the Philippines, known in Spanish history as El Desastre [The Disaster], casts a shadow on the intellectual elite and triggers a debate on the reconstruction (or ‘healing’, to use the terminology of the Generation of ‘98) of a damaged country. The loss of Empire was one of the factors that led to an identity crisis, solutions to which were put forward from several different directions. Some, such as Miguel de Unamuno, proposed an answer ‘from within’, whereas others, among them José Ortega y Gasset, pointed to Europe as the key to eliminating the country’s socio-economic underdevelopment. Importantly, both positions are united in understanding Spain as a spiritual oasis in the materialist and soulless Occident.

During this turning point, Roma became the scapegoats for the backwardness of the nation, while activities associated with their culture (e.g. flamenco, bullfighting) were looked down upon. The café cantante, a meeting point where ‘Gitanos’, ‘non-Gitanos’, and aficionados would gather to socialise and enjoy flamenco, was perceived by intellectuals as a place of pornography and perversion. As Unamuno put it: ‘One of the worst evils Spain suffers from is the passion for bullfighting and flamenquism’.2

However, this venue, as a new modality in the entertainment industry, also provided a stage for rising female artists and served as a point of transition between theatre and film, witnessing the birth of Spain’s first film stars. In fact, when Spanish cinema was born, one of the first and most popular subgenres in Spanish cinema was the españolada, a ‘hybrid genre of romantic comedy and/or melodrama incorporating regional, primarily Andalusian, song and dance’,3 whose main character tends to be the folclórica (the star from the café cantante), a female Andalusian singer or dancer who is usually portrayed as a Spanish Roma in the film, but is not necessarily a ‘Gitana’ herself.

The reference to Merimée’s Carmen was hard to avoid, but Spanish cinema needed to appropriate this character and shape her as ‘Spanish’. Although few Spanish films were direct adaptations of the opera Carmen, the españolada established a dialogue with the mythical character created by the French author, reshaping his construction in order to better represent the nation. In this fashion, Unamuno was voicing a general reaction against the folklorised portrait of Spain being painted by a foreign brush, yet also appropriated by Spaniards themselves.

Furthermore, the folclórica combines stereotypical characteristics of the French Carmen, as well as incorporating new properties, such as the piousness that purifies her. Thus, the folkloric and implicitly Romani character is a beautiful woman full of passion, who sings and dances flamenco, but who also possesses a Christian morality which prevents her from becoming the femme fatale, a character despised by the cultural critics and intellectual elites.

The plot is structured similarly to a comedy of entanglement, a melodrama in which the protagonist comes into contact with the majority society, where she falls in love with a man who occupies an important position within the community; for the sake of the relationship she distances herself from her roots and adopts the dominant culture. In the encounter between the two cultures an exchange takes place: the ‘tamed’ Romani woman comes to participate in the majority society and enriches it with her grace.

This construction of the ‘Gitano’ figure can be compared to to the phenomenon of ‘blackface’ in the United States, in making racial difference more accessible to the majority spectators. In fact, the españolada was acted mainly by members of the dominant community, with just a few exceptions such as Pastora Imperio, Carmen Amaya and Lola Flores. Of these, only Lola Flores was considered a folclórica. Pastora Imperio belonged to a pre-folclórica generation (the first decades of the twentieth century), and Amaya introduced herself as a flamenco dancer, nor as a singer of the Spanish copla song, nor as an actress.

Thus, the audience could easily identify with the protagonist (mainly white females interpreting a Roma character), and consequently elements of ‘Gypsiness’ were incorporated in the construction of the national identity as a folkloric aspect. An illustrative example is the film Morena Clara (Florián Rey, Spain, 1936), one of the biggest successes of this subgenre, featuring the well-known white actress and folclórica Imperio Argentina. She plays Trini, a young Roma who falls in love with an attorney she meets in her own trial when she is accused – keeping the stereotype alive – of petty theft. Although he is troubled by her racial origin, she is transformed throughout the course of film, and eventually he returns her love because ‘[she is] not a Gypsy any more than the flounces of [her] dress’. The attorney’s comment highlights the fact that the ‘Gypsiness’ of Trini’s character has a costume-like nature which can be shed if needed, and therefore the assimilation to the majority is a natural process.

Federico García Lorca and His Sombre Vision

The folkloric interpretation of Roma put forward by the españolada encounters its opponents in a ‘Gitanophile’ wave, whose best-known representative was Federico García Lorca. Contrary to the amusing projection of the Roma figure, the poet sought to rescue flamenco, and by extension, the Roma community, from the negative connotation conferred by the fin-de-siècle intellectual elites.

In their quest for artistic authenticity and purity, Lorca and others such as Manuel de Falla emphasised the ‘Gitano’ as the embodiment of the Spanish soul: contemplative and fatalist. In Lorca’s view, the Roma figure symbolised the essence of Spanishness; as he put it:

‘The Gitano is the highest, the deepest, most aristocratic of my country, the most representative of its way and the one that keeps the ember, the blood and the alphabet of the universal Andalusian truth.’4

Lorca perceived Roma as the guard of Andalusian identity, which signified Spain as a whole.

Lorca’s vision also inspired Gypsy Ballads (Romancero Gitano, 1928) – one of the author’s best known collection of poems, describing oneiric Andalusian landscape with Spanish Roma as their main protagonist – and a series of important cultural events such as the ‘Contest of the Deep Song’ (‘Concurso de Cante Jondo’) in Granada in 1922.

The main goal of this contest – which still takes place – was to promote flamenco not only as an entertainment in the café cantante, but to elevate it from popular to highbrow culture. Efforts like this affected the representation of Roma in film, shifting from cheerful and colourful in nature to more sombre and contemplative.

This shift is characteristic of Francisco Elías’s 1936 film María de la O , featuring the Romani flamenco dancer Carmen Amaya as the lead character in her first moving picture.5 Amaya’s interpretation of María differs greatly from the folkloric representation which was popular at the time. The director takes advantage of Amaya’s dancing skills, and incorporates several scenes into the plot where the audience can enjoy her innovative flamenco technique.

Nevertheless, Amaya’s artistic attributes are not the only alteration in this new paradigm of Roma representation. Her severity and demureness are consistent with Lorca’s imagery. Moreover, Amaya herself employed this exotic fantasy to design her own dramatic persona in claiming Andalusian origins, despite being born in Barcelona, because this narrative would fit better with the majority’s imagination.

Despite providing an alternative to the picturesque representation of the Roma character, this new reading is not without problems. While Lorca’s vision of the community, in contributing to the creation of a national culture, improves the perception of Roma in the cultural scene, it also projects a different set of expectations which are characterised by sobriety.

Jo Labanyi reflects on creating a national culture as an artifice: ‘The development of the concept of national culture is also accompanied by the mythification of folk culture as an expression of the national soul’.6 A process of this kind is carried out from the perspective of two strategies: invisibilisation (pushing these cultural expressions to the margins) and/or cannibalisation (taking some forms of folklore and incorporating them into the national cultural discourse). Lorca’s work (and that of his generation) is inscribed in the tendency to rescue and at the same time purify folklore, creating an artefact that will present an alternative to the previous perception.

In sum, two paradigms coexist in the representation of the Roma figure in Spanish cinematography: on the one hand there is the picturesque approach of the folclórica, in which the Roma character is usually presented as assimilated to the majority society, becoming a token of colourful presence and a justification of miscegenation, and on the other hand there is a sombre approach, which is dominated by a stoic interpretation of ‘Gypsiness’, pondering its purity and authenticity. Despite the popularity of the former in the first half of the twentieth century, the latter progressively replaced it in the final decades of Franco’s dictatorship.

Dealing with modernity

Although it is hard to set an exact date for the change in Roma representation, I would suggest the premiere of Los Tarantos, a 1963 film by a Catalan filmmaker that once more features Carmen Amaya, as marking the transition to a different, more ethnographic, language in portraying the ‘Gitano’ community.

During the 1960s, Spain finally broke its self-imposed isolation and began to participate openly in the capitalist economic system. Modernisation of the country and its burgeoning economy placed Spain on a par with other European powers. Tourism became one of the country’s fastest growing industries with the highest revenues, something that had a great impact on society, along with its values and relationships. The presence of foreign tourists in Spain has liberated Spanish society from its strict Catholic morality and opened up opportunities for social interaction.

Interestingly, Spain advertised itself with a catchy slogan – ‘Spain is different’ – coined by the minister of tourism Manuel Fraga, which refers less to the diverse geography than to the exoticism fantasised long ago by nineteenth-century travellers.

‘Gitanos’, as represented in Los Tarantos, stand for both: as a commodity to be consumed by foreign tourists who want to experience exoticism in a safe manner, and also as the last bastion of a pure, innocent locus, untouched by industrialisation. In this sense, the director takes over and reinforces Lorca’s proposed portrayal of the community as the guardian of superior morals, unpolluted by the process of industrialisation in the country.

Francisco Rovira-Beleta includes a new layer to his ethnographic representation of Roma, presenting what he calls a ‘documentary air’ in the feature film Los Tarantos. The film is set in Amaya’s birthplace, Somorrostro which, along with Montjuïc, is a traditionally ‘Gitano’ neighbourhood in Barcelona, although at the time the film was shot there were hardly any Roma inhabitants left in Somorrostro. The director’s ethnographic aspirations capture the nostalgic gaze with which this generation turns to the past. As Regina Bendix explains:

Folklore has long served as a vehicle in the search for the authentic, satisfying a longing for an escape from modernity. The ideal folk community, envisioned as pure and free from civilization’s evils, was a metaphor for everything that was not modern.7

Significantly, in this film, which would be Carmen Amaya’s last, she played the lead character, the mother of Rafael, the Romani Romeo. The world-famous bailaora, or flamenco dancer, came to embody the community, and her flamenco art occupied centre stage. Symbolically, this was the film that Spain submitted for the Academy Awards in 1963, underlining the image that the nation wanted to export onto the international scene.

Democracy: What Now?

The representation of Roma in the aforementioned films is carried out from a perspective of the majority society in which the Roma community does not participate; even if itis involved, it is not from a place of enunciating power. However, the end of the Franco dictatorship and the opportunity for a democratic regime altered this trend.

The year 1975 saw the premiere of Camelamos naquerar, a title in Caló which, as Andrea Pocsik points out in her essay on language, translates as ‘We want to speak’. This linguistic gesture is extremely important in establishing resistance to the representation of the official cinematographic apparatus.

The film’s use of flamenco is markedly different from the way it is treated in other films. In this case, both singing and dancing suppose a mode of expression through which the history of the ‘Gitano’ people is transmitted to the spectator. This work, resulting from the collaboration between poet and professor José Heredia Maya and dancer and choreographer Mario Maya, constituted a milestone in the way the community was presented to the majority society. Nevertheless, the film did not prevent stereotypes being perpetuated about Roma in the cinema.

Miguel Alcobendas | Camelamos Naquerar | Fiction | Spain | 1976 | fil_00149 Rights held by: Miguel Alconbendas — José Heredia Maya — Mario Maya | Licensed by: Edificio EGEDA | Licensed under: Rights of Use | Provided by: Edificio EGEDA (Madrid/Spain)

It is important to consider how the new regime impacted the filmic representation of the ‘Gitano’. In Spanish society, Francisco Franco’s death was viewed as an opportunity to become a European democracy and a modern nation, both economically and politically. Therefore, rather than aspiring to be ‘different’, as a 1960s publicity slogan proclaimed, Spain sought to present itself as a nation that turns diversity into a marker of modernity.

As Jo Labanyi observes: ‘It is because Spain has now recognized its cultural plurality that is no longer possible to make a clear cut between what is and what is not Spanish.’8 Jumping on the wagon of modernity meant including difference – in this case Roma – in the very definition of Spanishness.

Spanish cinematography often gives an account of the various challenges brought about by rapid political change through the figure of the Rom, which once again functions as a ‘screen’ upon which the incongruities of the nation-building project can become visible. Thus, in cinematographic production there is a tendency to normalise and de-exoticise Roma characters, yet deeply rooted stereotypes mean that this can have the opposite effect.

Alma Gitana (Chus Gutiérrez, 1996) is a good example of this phenomenon. The film narrates an interracial love story between a Roma woman and non-‘Gitano’ man, and the difficulties both face in order to understand and overcome their cultural differences. The director chose the actors consciously: the female lead actress is Amara Carmona, a young Roma, and so are some of the other crew members. In aspiring to capture a positive image of the Roma community Gutiérrez reverses the stereotypes and presents a respected Roma family, while the negative characteristics are condensed in the white male character.

Despite displaying a positive image of the minority, this strategy is still problematic due to its simple, dychotomic reversion. As Ella Shohat and Robert Stam caution in Unthinking Eurocentrism:

The ‘positive image’ approach assumes a bourgeois morality intimately linked to status quo politics. What is seen as ‘positive’ by a dominant group [...] might be seen as treason by the dominated group. [...] A ‘positive image’ approach also ignores the question of perspective and the social positioning both of the filmmakers and the audience.9

The characterisation of the minority carried out by the director lacks depth as the Roma community remains a depository of tradition. Gutiérrez does, however, allow for the development of the white male character, who approaches the Roma girl as a pillar of history, traditions and morals.

As the translation of the title ‘Gypsy Soul’ indicates, the Roma community provides spiritual relief – a Roma soul – for a society that seems disoriented by the sudden changes imposed on it.


In summary, the representation of Roma stands at the intersection of different political and ideological discourses. Although the portrayal of Romani characters changes throughout the twentieth century, it is continually employed to embody the exceptionality through difference that Spain aims to project as a key component of its national identity narrative. The representation of the Roma, simultaneously represents Spanishness as well as serving as an internal Other to screen the tensions, fantasies, and fears of Spanish society. Only in recent decades, with Roma participating not only as actors but also as directors, authors and political activists, has the filmic representation of this community been questioned and reshaped.

Rights held by: Bohumira Smidakova | Licensed by: Bohumira Smidakova | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International | Provided by: RomArchive